Down, But Not Out


Daria gets some instructions from Przemek.

Daria gets some instructions from Przemek.

(2015) Sports Documentary (Green Box) Alicja Cichewicz, Anna Pazdur-Czarnowska, Przemyslaw “Przemek” Rydynski, Daria Strzepka, Agnieszka Szmerek. Directed by Miguel Gaudéncio

Some call boxing the “sweet science” for reasons I can’t fathom. Any aficionado of the sport will tell you that it isn’t just two lugs throwing punches at one another; boxing requires skill, strategy and the ability to literally think on your feet.

A quartet of Polish women are going to an amateur boxing tournament in Poznan to box in their first matches. They are Alicja, Anna, Daria and Agnieszka – which sounds a bit like a Swedish pop group – and they are accompanied by their coach Przemek. He acts as their mentor, confidante, cheerleader and comforter. As the matches continue, the girls learn that sparring is a lot different than boxing, that heart and courage can take time to accumulate and that the sport is so much harder than it looks.

Filmed in gritty black and white, the film has a bit of a verité look to it, a cross between a newsreel and noir. Portuguese director Gaudéncio has a good eye and lines up some really nice shots, although at times he seems to fall in love with his own imagery; early on, an out of focus shot of passing streetlamps runs on interminably. I suspect that he is still learning the rhythms of film making, or at least of editing.

Even so, the movie runs on a mere 67 minutes so there is brevity to it, but it covers a 24 hour span. That’s not nearly enough time to get to know five people, and so Gaudéncio opts not to even try. We get no interviews, no voiceover narration, no graphics. Just raw footage and there is something to be admired about that.

Still, even a documentary is telling a story and in that sense Gaudéncio abrogates his responsibility by simply putting up the footage and letting us see it, forcing us to draw our own conclusions. Why did these four women, all of whom are beauties, enter the ring in the first place? What about what is likely the world’s most brutal sport appealed to them? What did they hope to accomplish? Were they intending to turn pro? None of these questions are answered because none of these questions are asked.

We end up not caring much who wins or loses each fight; we are simply observers and are not invested in what we see. That is the difference between raw footage and a documentary; in one, we become interested in the subjects because we know something about them and can relate to them. The other is like watching a boxing match on HBO – worse still, because HBO generally tells you something about the boxers and who they are. Here we are left with little more than names.

The paucity of information is offset somewhat by the dazzling electronic soundtrack and the beautiful black and white images. Perhaps this is a movie that simply should be experienced without preconceptions and without judgment; in that sense, this is what cinema verité is supposed to ideally be. However, this isn’t a film that is inclined to spoonfed their audience anything and while we get maddening glimpses of who these people are, we don’t get enough to really want to get to know them further which is simply death to a documentary.

At the end of the day the fighters and their managers become mere faces on a screen. Pretty faces, yes; but just faces nonetheless. They are no more compelling than the animatronic figures in the Disney parks and that does them a disservice. I think I see what the director was going for here, and I can admire his desire to make something unique, but unique doesn’t necessarily mean better always. I think there are those who will love this movie – certainly boxing fans will want to see it – but I think that there are many more who will find this a hard sell.

WHY RENT THIS: Love the soundtrack. Some cool cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No interaction with boxers whatsoever. Look, Ma, I’m directing. Style over substance.
FAMILY VALUES: Boxing violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The longest production element was the soundtrack, which took four months to record and sync.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Gift

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Desire for Beauty


The things we go through to look good.

The things we go through to look good.

(2013) Documentary (Green Box) Agata Kulesza, Maria Czubaszek, Lew Starowicz, Mikolaj Lizut, Katazyna Miller, Piotr Najsztub, Julia Pietrucha, Maria Rotkiel, Marzena Sienkiewicz, Agnieszka Szulim. Directed by Miguel Gaudencio

There is no doubt that our society in general is overly obsessed with physical beauty. We place a great deal of stock in it; We choose our mates largely due to it; we buy products because of it. Sex sells, so we all want to be sexy.

This unusual Polish documentary looks at the obsession with beauty as four individuals begin the road to plastic surgery. Kasia, a wife and mother, is going for a breast augmentation. She has always wanted larger breasts and although her husband insists that this isn’t something that he desires, she quite candidly tells interviewer Agata Kulesza (an acclaimed Polish actress, perhaps best known to American audiences for her role as the aunt and judge Wanda in Ida) that she is doing this for herself alone.

Kuba is an aspiring actor who seems handsome enough already; he thinks a little Botox here and there might get him roles that he wasn’t being considered for until now. Monika is having a few nips and tucks done; she wants to remain young and beautiful for as long as she can. However, she is denied the procedures she wants done; the doctors believe she is too young for it.

And finally there’s Kamilla, whose nose has been the cause of much bullying (we see a re-enactment of her school days when a bitchy young girl, after borrowing some smokes in the bathroom, proclaims haughtily “If I were you, I’d get plastic surgery.” Fed up with the teasing and the bullying, she resolves to get rhinoplasty which she sees as the key to finding peace and happiness for herself.

We follow all four of these subjects through the various stages of surgery, with Kulesza conducting periodic interviews while in Kamilla’s case, we see re-enactments of the teasing she has to endure. In fact, this is an odd mixture of documentary and drama; one reviewer characterized it as “reality TV” and she isn’t far off the mark. This isn’t scripted all that much but there are segments which certainly are. How much of it is scripted however is not very easily discernible; some of the situations seem rather contrived and/or convenient if indeed they are real.

The cinematography is exquisite here; some of the images are downright cinematic paintings. Subjects look pensively into the horizon, the light of the setting sun creating an angelic corona around their heads. Mothers play with children, chasing after them in the park. Friends hang out in clubs, dancing to the mechanized beat of modern music. While not all of the footage is germane to what is happening in the storylines, the movie would be less beautiful without it.

The subject of beauty and our attitudes towards it has an inherent problem; the subject itself is shallow. Beauty is, indeed, only skin deep and the societal obsession with it is something that would make a great documentary. At times there is some depth to the conversation here but it is incomplete; the director, who has done a couple of features as well as a passel of award-winning music videos, seems more focused on beautiful images than in depth of thought. Perhaps that is his point in a nutshell.

Nonetheless, I would have liked to see more on why society is so wrapped up in physical beauty and why it is such a driving force. This much is universal; it’s the same in Asia as it is in Europe and the Americas. Why is beauty so important to us? Why aren’t we more focused on, say, intelligence, or character? Alas, these questions aren’t even asked and perhaps this isn’t the right venue for it. The people who are focused on here are fairly simple and even though they are all already beautiful, they are not satisfied with it. That is, perhaps, the point after all.

The movie received a brief theatrical release in Europe but is hitting VOD here and can also be seen on Vimeo. While this is certainly not the last word on the subject, Desire for Beauty serves as an excellent starting point to begin a discussion on how this obsession with looks is impacting society – and ourselves.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating subject. Interesting blend of drama and documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: Not always easy to tell where dramatic recreations begin and documentary ends. Unavoidably shallow in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some nudity and harsh language as well as some graphic surgery footage not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kulesza accepted her role in the film after meeting with the director despite the fact that there was no script written.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Model
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Roar